Posts Tagged ‘Cake’


“Icebox” cake

I think I may be clinging too closely to a routine. Perhaps this is unhealthy?

Here’s the problem. My Sundays are programmed and scheduled to the point that they make some weekdays look relaxed. I will admit a great reluctance to making any adjustments to this schedule as it consists of activities that I enjoy and look forward to. Just one example: every Sunday I make pizza. I’m not giving that up. This activity is so deeply ingrained that if civilization as we know it ever disappears, I will still be found every Sunday trying to bake pizza over whatever source of heat I can find.

Slightly earlier in the day you’ll find me dutifully sprawled on my sofa watching America’s Test Kitchen, the TV show produced by the Boston-based folks who publish Cook’s Illustrated Magazine.

I’ll admit to a certain love / hate relationship with the show and magazine. Some of their recipes can be a bit labor intense, with certain individual ingredients requiring their own multiple steps of pre-prep. But everything they prepare really does look good, and I am convinced that they know their stuff and produce the show with a minimum of TV trickery. None of this really matters. I sit motionless, as transfixed to the screen as I used to be when Captain Kangaroo would weave his magic with construction paper.

A few weeks ago they did something that literally made me sit up from my sprawl, point at the screen, and say out loud, “That’s a great idea!” with an enthusiasm so ripe that, had you been there, you likely would have heard the exclamation mark too.

After this huge buildup I’m sure it will be a huge letdown to tell you that all they did was cut a sheet cake into four pieces.

Layering a cake has always been a tricky proposition for me. I love height, and I love cakes with more than two layers. I just think they are fun and a bit dramatic. I usually bake cakes for special occasions like birthdays, so a little drama isn’t unwelcome. I think it is safe to say that any time you hand something to someone that is on fire there is already a bit of drama afoot, but when the cake has been cut and is being passed on a sagging paper plate, awaiting decimation, a bit of “Wow” should still remain.

The America’s Test Kitchen folks were baking carrot cake that day. Instead of baking the cake in the usual round layer pans, they baked one sheet cake, cut it into four pieces, and ended up with a handsome, square, four layer cake. The advantage to that recipe was that they could better control the cake-to-cream cheese frosting ratio.

I like carrot cake, but given a choice I’ll always go for chocolate cake with white “boiled” frosting, a combination I grew up on in New England. The frosting was called “boiled” but was really a meringue, usually Swiss or Italian. The difference is how the sugar is cooked, with Italian Meringue being the sturdier of the two. (I never fail to be entertained by whipping egg whites into fluff. Yes, I am easily amused.)

I’ve tried various chocolate cake recipes for years but have recently settled on a doctored version of the Hershey’s “Perfectly Chocolate” chocolate cake recipe found on the back of their cocoa powder cans.

Apologies to the folks at Hershey…the doctoring includes not using powdered cocoa, but melted, unsweetened chocolate. (Hershey makes that too, so the ingredients stay “in the family” so to speak.) The other doctoring is simple: brown sugar instead of white, and the addition of instant espresso powder. The recipe is easy, and there’s no butter—canola oil is used instead, which I think makes it a better, moister, cake. Kind of fudgy, but still definitely cake.

The first thing I noticed about baking the recipe in one sheet pan was that I didn’t have to worry about dividing the batter evenly amongst several pans. The cake baked in one even layer, so cutting off the crown as is often necessary with round layers, was eliminated.

I made a minor change to the Americas Test Kitchen technique: instead of cutting the cake into four quadrants (two cuts, north to south and east to west), I cut it into four long strips (three cuts, all north to south—get it?) The change in geometry made my cake come out more like a squared log than just a square.

Stacking the layers with a thin veneer of meringue between each was simple, and the first cut inspired my name for this cake: “Icebox” cake.

If you are unfamiliar with Icebox Cake, this was a simple “no bake” dessert made from Nabisco Famous Chocolate Wafer cookies (addictive, and hard to find) and whipped cream. You stacked layers of the cookies and whipped cream into a log, refrigerated it, then served it in slices.

My personal preference is to serve it not quite chilled, so if you store it in the fridge let it sit out for a while. Each slice is a combination of fluffy meringue and fudgy cake. Looks particularly fetching aflame with candles, but stash this recipe away and think of it when barbecue season rolls around too.

Hey look: we put the cake in Icebox Cake.


Click here for the Icebox Cake recipe

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Fall Back: Springy Ahead

Citrus Chiffon Cake

Citrus Chiffon Cake

The couple of weeks that follow Labor Day are like a limbo. It still feels like summer, but you can sense Fall running up behind you to tap you on the shoulder. If you’re like me you slow your walking down a bit so Fall can catch up. That also means the Jewish High Holidays will soon be tapping the other shoulder, and like High Tea, it’s really all about the food. (Pardon my sacrilege.)

No matter how devout you are, chances are that at some point during the season you’ll end up with someone placing a napkin containing either a slice of Honey Cake or Sponge Cake in your hand. Honey Cake evokes both the apples and honey tradition of welcoming a sweet new year, and the European Pain d’Epice influence earned from thousands of years of the Diaspora.

On the other hand, Sponge Cake is the Jewish Wonder bread.

Ah well, I come here not to bury Sponge Cake but to make peace with it, kind of like striking up a conversation about politics with a cranky old uncle. (Good luck.)

Perhaps I am painting with too broad a brush. Perhaps it is not Sponge Cake that is the enemy, but poorly made Sponge Cake, baked way too far in advance, and wrapped tightly in plastic. (Mmmm. Sounds yummy, right?)

The Sponge Cake to which I am referring, a staple of High Holiday supermarket fare, is actually Chiffon Cake. Chiffon Cake was created by an American named Henry Baker. (Baker! I love it when peoples’ names work out like that: Tommy Tune is a musical theater performer and director. We had a relative (by marriage) named Ike Oven who was also a baker. A friend swears he knows a Dr. Doctor. By those rules my last name should be Thinksheisawriter.)

Chiffon Cake differs from Angel Food Cake or Jelly Roll sponge (biscuit) because of the addition of oil. While the oil does provide moistness, it also makes for a damp cake, and lacks the rich flavor of butter—a potential pitfall in a cake that lacks other flavorful ingredients.

Don’t blame baker Henry Baker; he didn’t intend for Chiffon Cake to be served plain. He piled it with fruit, custard, whipped cream—anything to dress it up. His Chiffon Cake was the canvas, the other stuff was the paint.

So there you go: we’re serving the canvas. No criticism from me though, because I understand why: convenience. Chiffon Cake is a “little something” traditionally served after observing a long worship in temple when the blood sugar of millions of Jews has crashed lower than yesterday’s Dow. When I was a kid you got cake and grape juice. Chiffon Cake was cheap, easily obtained, and ready for a crowd with just a few swipes of a knife. Also, kids wouldn’t get it all over their clothes.

There used to be something so essentially Jewish about cake. The comedian Jackie Mason has made it the subject of a whole routine: “It is easy to tell the difference between Jews and Gentiles. After the show, all the gentiles are saying ‘Have a drink? Want a drink? Let’s have a drink!’ While all the Jews are saying ‘Have you eaten yet? Want a piece of cake? Let’s have some cake!'”

When the comedian Rosie O’Donnell was trying to thank Barbra Streisand for being on her show she brought her cake. (Streisand was an aficionado of the late, lamented Ebbinger’s bakery chain. O’Donnell had one of the Ebbinger’s recipes recreated for the occasion.)

Mason’s riff on cake always made me think of a Sour Cream Coffee Cake my mother used to make. Even now it brings to mind cinnamon, brown sugar, and walnuts. Chiffon Cake? No.

None of this solves the issue of bad Chiffon Cake, but I would do well to mind the old adage, “One man’s feast is another man’s famine.” Translation: just because I don’t like Chiffon Cake doesn’t mean the world shares my opinion.

As a test I decided to make my own Chiffon Cake therefore putting to rest the debate about whether or not fresh, homemade Chiffon Cake makes a difference. For this little contest I held myself to one rule: it had to be baked in a loaf pan to match the format of the supermarket brands.

The supermarket brands have an indeterminate sweet, cakey flavor. I thought it might make my cake more interesting if it made a specific choice, as if it could say, “Hello, I am a Citrus Chiffon Cake.” My old trick ingredient, frozen concentrated orange juice, was nominated, as was fresh lemon zest and juice, plus a bit more vanilla extract than usually called for. No need for subtlety here as the hefty amount of eggs in the recipe tends to blunt the sharp edges of any added flavors.

The result is springy in texture, bright in flavor, but still unquestionably the High Holiday Sponge Cake I’ve come to know and be bored by. Still better than the fossilized supermarket loaf, but screaming for some ice cream and strawberry sauce.

I don’t need a holiday for that.


Click here for my Citrus Chiffon Loaf.

Also good for the High Holidays: Pumpkin Apple Praline Cake and Challah.


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Sweet tweet (complete)

Bowl And Spoon

Blueberry Crunch Cake

Blueberry Crunch Cake

It often occurs to me that if I weren’t in the kitchen cooking or baking I would likely be fixing (okay, breaking) something mechanical. I’ve always been like that. Always fiddling with something, pushing its buttons, seeing how it works. I’m a “Popular Science” man in a “Bon Appétit” world. Truth is though, having watched chefs at close range I realize that the best of them are just gearheads in white coats. While they have huge respect for craft and technique, they also love trying out a new toy. Crème brulee blow torch anyone? (Don’t forget your safety goggles.)

It is only natural to become a bit reliant on these toys. When was the last time you didn’t plug in a toaster to make toast? Not the same thing, you say. Really?

I’m not being judgmental but merely pointing out that it is human nature to constantly seek out the right tool for any job. The Williams-Sonoma catalogue plays right to that strain of DNA. Sure, you could hammer that nail with the heel of your shoe, but why would you when there’s a great invention called a hammer? Granted, hammering with your shoe has its advantages, not the least of which is storage. When you’re done hammering you simply put the tool away by putting it back on your foot.

Hey. I think we’ve got a great idea for a new “as seen on TV” item here. The Shammer? The Shoemmer? We’ll work on it. Surely we can do better than “Pajama Jeans.”

I am the first to admit that I may have an over reliance on my Kitchen Aid stand mixer. If I could drive it like a car I probably would. I make no apologies for this; it is built like a Sherman tank and I have no doubt that even New York City cabbies would veer out of my way if they saw me driving around the city in it.

This, of course, begs the question: if my Kitchen Aid were somehow incapacitated could I still bake something decent? An even better question is: in a city full of folks just starting out, who have varying amounts of limited time, kitchen space, and equipment, can some decent scratch baking get done?

If you don’t live in Manhattan you may not realize some of the great oddities of everyday life here (I’m talking about the stuff that doesn’t get aired on Eyewitness News.) We live without things that people elsewhere take for granted. I know plenty of folks here who don’t have a real kitchen. Instead they have a couple of burners, and a below the counter fridge. They may have supplemented this with a toaster oven and perhaps a microwave. Almost none of us have a washer and dryer in our apartment, even in the fanciest of buildings. (This is the reason I hate doing laundry.)

Carrie Bradshaw may have been as hooked on her couture as I am on my All-Clad, but you never saw her lugging her dirty La Perlas and a jug of Tide down to the Laundromat. A glaring omission.

Cooking-wise, this reminds me of one of my great “pet –peeves.” My admiration for Ina Garten or Martha Stewart aside, the thing you never, ever see on TV cooking shows is the clean up. You think when the director yells, “Cut!” at the end of a taping that Martha rolls up her sleeves and starts washing the dishes? Uh-uh. That’s what the interns are for.

(Now THAT’S an idea for a TV show: “Battle of the Network Dishwashers.” Sorry folks. I’m keeping that one for myself.)

(That’s not to say that Martha can’t wash dishes. Something tells me that she can do it better, faster, and more efficiently than you and me put together. No I’m not scared of her. Much.)

I may be overly reliant on my Kitchen Aid, but I wasn’t born with it in my hands. Give me a big bowl and a wooden spoon. I’ll still get the job done. My mission? A small vocabulary of recipes that can be made in any kitchen with only the most basic ingredients and equipment. The payoff? Wholesome baking, from scratch, that you would be proud to share with friends, office-mates, family, or someone special (cue saxophone.)

Please don’t be turned off by the word “wholesome.” I don’t mean Donny Osmond (yeah, yeah, I know, “What’s wrong with Donny Osmond?” Nothing.) I mean good food, with healthy, recognizable ingredients. Wholesome. The other payoff is that limiting the equipment makes clean up easier and faster. I can’t guarantee that I’ll never use a mixer in this set of recipes, but if I do, you can use the hand-held kind. (A cheap, easily stored investment.)

For me, the downside of limiting ingredients is that there may be times when you lose a bit of complexity in the flavors. If that’s the case, I’ll mention a few options that you can add if you are feeling ambitious. There are a few expectations: you must have a big bowl, measuring spoons, measuring cups, and baking pans that fit your oven. That’s the price of admission. Oh, and that bowl? I prefer glass, but stainless steel is fine too, and get one bigger than you ever think you’ll use. You can also serve salad from it, or store other bowls in it. Mine is (I think) 6 to 8 quarts.  (Here’s a good example.) Why the fuss over the size of the bowl? Because to me there is nothing more aggravating than trying to stir something in a bowl and having it overflow. A big bowl means you can stir with abandon.

Every few weeks or so I’ll add to this list of recipes. This week’s recipe has an added bonus: it is actually three recipes, all from the same ingredients, with slight variations in the preparation.

With local blueberries so abundant during this time of year, I decided to start with a Basic Blueberry Crunch Cake. If you choose, you can use the same recipe to make muffins, but I prefer the cake, and you should feel free to serve it straight from the pan. The crunch topping is a very basic streusel, but with less butter, so the topping is looser. The cake is yummy, but I would have preferred the spiciness of some cinnamon, and maybe the springiness of a scraping or two of lemon zest. Twice the prescribed amount of vanilla extract wouldn’t be a bad change either. If you’re feeling ambitious, add about a teaspoon of cinnamon to the crunch topping, and a teaspoon of lemon zest to the cake batter when you’re mixing the sugar into the egg.

Besides the cake and muffins, you can use the same recipe to make blueberry pancakes.

By the way: I’ve already cheated. I used a rubber scraper to transfer the batter from the bowl to the cake pan. I could have used my hand, I guess, but c’mon.

Next mission: to see if I can get my Kitchen Aid to do my laundry.


Click here for the recipe for Blueberry Crunch Cake.


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Nostalgia: Not Just for Luddites Anymore

Newton Center Cupcakes

Cupcakes and ocean liners

Here’s a startling revelation: I am a soap opera fan. Some years ago my brother came home from college for winter break and stopped everything to watch “All My Children.” Those were the days when soaps were big on college campuses. I was hooked.

Maybe it’s in the blood: family legend has it that in the days before the invention of the VCR, a late Aunt stopped a Passover Seder between the third and the fourth questions so she could watch “Peyton Place”.

By the time I got to college the shared obsession was “One Life To Live” and I have followed that show, a/k/a, “my stories” on and off since then. (Mostly “on” since the invention of the DVR.)

It was recently announced that ABC has decided to cancel “All My Children” and “One Life To Live” and I’ll admit that the announcement made me a bit emotional. Not many folks watch the soaps anymore, so these shows, which used to be cash cows, have become drains on the network’s bottom line. I’m not here to complain or demonize anyone for this decision, after all, that’s show biz. They say that the soaps are dead. Really? Wait until their long lost “twin” shows up.

Supposedly reality TV has supplanted the soaps in the hearts and minds of the audience advertisers most want to reach. If my Baby Niece is any indication, that may be true. Folks have always criticized the soaps for outlandish storylines and silly plot devices. Guilty, but I say therein lies their charm, buffed to a sometimes uneven gloss by actors of varying talents reading from a script.

Reality shows? We are told we are seeing genuine outlandish behavior. Often though, reality TV feels like video of people who waited to misbehave until they saw the red light of the camera. You are left to wonder if they’d be flipping tables or throwing glasses of wine at each other even if the cameras weren’t there. Some great actors got their start on the soaps. Where will Snooki be in thirty years?

In the meantime, this has gotten me thinking about a rapidly changing world. I think a combination of technology and the ticking clock is at play. Nothing new here. Fifty years ago the Boeing 707 rendered the ocean liner obsolete. Yes, we still have cruise ships, but it is not quite the same experience. The s.s. United States was launched in 1952 and was the most technologically advanced liner in the world. She still holds the records for the fastest east and west transatlantic crossings, and it was widely advertised that the only wood on board was in the grand pianos. Yet, she has sat rusting and abandoned since 1969. Even her sleek mid-century interiors have been stripped away: they were loaded with asbestos. But she was—is—defiantly, a ship. In 2011, the largest cruise ship afloat, the “Allure of The Seas” features a tree-lined park, a Starbucks, and a 3-D theater. After all these years the good news is that the s.s. United States may become a fixed attraction on the New York waterfront, but her silent engines will likely bear witness to countless charity dinners, antiques shows, and Martha Stewart craft events.

No Luddite, I, the very fact that I write a blog—new media—is my testimony to that fact. I am a proud member of the digital / social media age, and I think it is all miraculous. Admittedly, I am conflicted about the BlackBerry and the iPhone, but that has more to do with living in a big city and having to constantly dodge people who walk the sidewalks of the city with their heads down, and of being subjected to them singing loudly in the gym to their “headphoned” music. (They hear Pavarotti. We hear the braying of a donkey.)

I was born too late to sail across the Atlantic on the s.s. United States, to see Olivier on stage as Hamlet, or to drive my Mom’s Rambler convertible. These things were meant to exist in their time and then leave behind only rapidly fading evidence of their existence—like paper streamers stretched between those departing on the ocean liner, and those back on the pier.

You assume things will be around forever. They won’t. That’s life.

I’d hate for you to think that I am a Gloomy Gus. No. There’s too much that’s great about the here and now. Someday we’ll be nostalgic for these “simple” times—a chilling thought.

Life is cyclical. The old maxim, “here today, gone tomorrow” should actually read, “here today, gone tomorrow, and then back again.” And look at all the stuff that has been rendered permanent by technology. Start with the written word and climb the ladder to “You Tube”.

Using a bit of old technology, you can even recreate childhood memories. When I was a little kid there was a bakery in Newton Centre, Massachusetts named Bob Ware’s Yum-Yum Shop. Bob Ware’s closed when I was a little kid –seemingly without an internet trace. Google it and you’ll find…me, or actually, my previous mention of the place. But to this day a certain cupcake my Mom used to bring home from Bob Ware’s (probably in her Rambler) has remained etched indelibly in my memory.

So using the aforementioned old technology called “baking”, I have resurrected this old favorite. And as I was leaning over the sink eating my chocolate cupcake (that’s where my Mother always ate them) I thought they were just as I remembered.

Cupcakes like these were likely a staple in neighborhood bakeries: nothing earth shattering, nothing revolutionary.  Their magic was in their subtlety. It wasn’t all about the big pile of frosting on top. I know that there are folks who insist that cupcakes are merely “delivery systems” for the frosting. This cupcake was a bit different and was more a tribute to balance and harmony…and there was not one ounce of buttercream. The cake was really good on its own (very dunkable), the chocolate glaze added a cap that could be peeled off and eaten separately. The ring of boiled frosting on top was as much a textural accent as a visual one. My Mom could linger over it a bit at the sink, one eye on “Love of Life” or “Secret Storm.”

A quiet moment before all hell would break loose: my brother and I coming home from school.


Click here for my recipe for “Newton Centre Cupcakes.”


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Aluminum. Mine.

Passsover Honey Cake Slices

Passover Honey Cake

Growing up in a Jewish home I was always made acutely aware of how important good food was—is—at any occasion. Even the post-funeral gatherings we call “sitting shiva” are excuses to pull out the good napkins. That’s why I am always mystified by my people’s willingness to put up with bad food on Passover. The excuse is always that you cannot cook with “chametz”, the umbrella word describing ingredients that are not allowed on Passover. This usually refers to anything bread or flour related, and any kind of leavening, but the actual rule bans things made from wheat, barley, oats, rye, or spelt. The only wheat product allowed is matzo and what I lovingly refer to as its derivatives: matzo that has been ground, crumbled, or otherwise processed so that it can be used in other recipes.

There is such a thing as Passover Baking Soda, which confuses me because I thought the purpose of the Passover holiday was to commemorate bread not being allowed to rise. Passover Baking Soda’s loophole? No cornstarch.

From a baker’s point of view it’s kind of like being told that you must substitute breadcrumbs for flour.

Generations of commercial kosher bakers have been putting their kids through Harvard and Yale just by selling Passover desserts to even the most unobservant Jews (hello) who have always been willing to pay for Passover-compliant cakes and cookies. Here’s the problem: a lot of it just isn’t very good, especially the supermarket brands. A lot of it is also…shall we say, “premium-priced.”

Apologies to the folks who produce the supermarket Passover stuff (and to their well-educated progeny), but a cake that has been sitting in a box for an unknown amount of time has a few strikes against it.

Is it heresy for me to complain? All I want is a good piece of cake, for goodness sake.

Luckily, I’m handy in the kitchen and have figured out a few tricks that result in desserts that aren’t just good for Passover, they’re good anytime of the year. Last year I made a Northern Italian-style Torta di Mandorla per la Pasqua, a chocolate, almond, egg white torte. I actually served it before Passover to a group of non-Jewish friends who loved it, and remains one of my favorite recipes. (It is very light so perfect for summer.)

This year I decided to re-visit the Grandmother of all Jewish Holiday desserts: Honey Cake. When I was a kid with (I’m guessing) a much less discerning palate, my presence at any event could be secured with the promise of honey cake. The typical honey cake comes in a loaf, usually encased in (don’t get me started) a disposable aluminum pan. To my adult palette though, honey cake always tastes a bit syrupy, and manages to be both too dry and too sodden. Not sure how that’s possible.

Blame science. In baking, the type of flour, its grind, the kind of wheat used, and how the milled flour has been treated are some of the things that rule how a cake gelatinizes (mixes with liquid then bakes into a solid). Passover Cake meal is basically powdered Matzo and has its own rule book, but it is easy to predict that this ingredient will lend density to a cake. The usual trick has always been to lighten the cake meal in a way that imitates traditional cake flour. This is usually accomplished by adding potato starch. The results vary according to the other ingredients in the cake. In the case of honey you end up with a wet, damp cake because honey is hygroscopic: it actually pulls moisture in even when baked.

Okay, I promise: no more science. But the takeaway here is: use too much honey and you’ll have a damp, heavy cake. Too little, your cake is dry. Just the right amount and you’ll have a cake that works at staying fresh. The question is: what can you add that will give the cake a true “crumb”, texture that makes a cake feel like a cake when you take a bite?

For the answer you can thank the current popularity of macarons, the colorful French-style almond macaroons. I have been trying to learn to make them (they’re tricky) and have a bag of almond flour sitting in my refrigerator. Almond flour is just the man for the job: it will mix well with the Passover Cake Meal to make a nice crumb and is Passover-friendly on its own.

Using almond flour in cake is certainly nothing new. Europeans have been baking with it for generations. So taking a cue from a French Galette, the simple round torte, I called my Springform pan into service.

The beauty of my concept was that with the honey and almond flour I already had two very flavorful ingredients. A couple of more layers of flavor would be ideal, so I used a delicate sprinkle of orange zest, and a not so delicate dash of frozen concentrated orange juice whose character would slightly overlap the honey while adding a sunny note of its own. A little cocoa powder and vanilla extract would bring some perfumed but earthy notes to the cake.

The result has the slight chewy crumb of a galette and a delicate honeyed sweetness that some may find reminiscent of the desserts the Spanish Sephardic Jews favor.

No disposable aluminum loaf pans required…or allowed.


Click here for the recipe for Passover Honey Cake.

Click here for the recipe for Torta di Mandorla per la Pasqua.


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Six Degrees of Boston Cream Pie

Boston Cream Pie


The actress Melissa Leo dropped “the “F” bomb” in her Oscar acceptance speech the other night. Personally I find this endearing and ironic. Endearing because it was a “real” moment—I place “real” in quotation marks because, let’s face it, it was an Academy Awards acceptance speech; how real could it be? It’s not like they pulled someone in off the street, stuck a statue in her hands and told her to give a speech. Nevertheless there was something genuine about the moment.

I find it ironic because she won the award for playing a rather foul-mouthed character. Or am I simply projecting a self-created veneer on this character? The movie for which she won, “The Fighter”, is a true story set in Lowell, Massachusetts, not all that far from where I grew up. I knew dozens of women like her. To be honest, I was more struck by the hair and makeup in the movie. They nailed it—that’s what those women really looked like.

Like another recent movie, “The Town”, I may have had moments where the accents let me down—the Boston accent is deceivingly difficult to do, and on film is more often done wrong than right. Pahkin ya cahr in Hahvid Yahd (trans: Parking your car in Harvard Yard) is not as easy as it seems. For that matter, I’d be willing to bet that Harvard Yard has a strict no parking policy.

While we’re on the subject of my heavily Irish-influenced home town, I’m reminded that St. Patrick’s Day isn’t far off. Pity the poor foodie on this day. Would it be terribly snarky to suggest that, food-wise, St. Patrick’s Day lacks subtlety? St. Patty’s day is usually celebrated with all things green, including beer and bagels. (I shouldn’t complain: in Chicago they tint the entire Chicago River green.) Irish Soda Bread? I did that last year. Corned Beef and Cabbage? It’s not calling my name.

Ah, but what about dessert? Some of us need a dessert that isn’t mugged and foamy after the Corned Beef and Cabbage. Don’t worry, I practice a strict “No Green Cake” policy.

First, pupils, here is this week’s history lesson. During the years I was growing up in Boston, the Ritz-Carlton was considered the city’s most luxurious hotel. That may or may not still be true, but it was the dowdier Parker House Hotel that was the backdrop against which quite a bit of history was played. The Parker House Hotel has been around in one form or another since 1847, the current building dating back to 1927. Aside from being the first Boston hotel to have hot and cold running water and an elevator, it is also where JFK announced he was running for the Senate, where he proposed to Jackie, and where he held his bachelor party. (We’ll let that last item slide.)

Authors like Edith Wharton and Stephen King wove portions of their stories through the Parker House (although in King’s short story “1408” he names the hotel “The Dolphin.”) Even more interesting is the parade of world-changers like Ho Chi Minh and Malcolm X who walked its halls—as employees. (According to Wikipedia, Ho Chi Minh was a baker. Who knew?)

Naturally the most interesting part of the hotel’s history—to me—is that it is the birthplace of the Boston Cream Pie, and, of course, the Parker House roll.

Boston Cream Pie is one of those old-fashioned diner desserts that we take for granted. For the uninitiated, it is not a pie, it is a cake. It is easy to take it for granted because by modern standards it is—like the Parker House was for many years—dowdy, or plain. Keep in mind that it wasn’t created to be dowdy or plain. It was created to be cutting edge; it is only the passage of time that has dulled that edge.

To make a Boston Cream Pie is to appreciate the tradition and the art that went into its creation. Let me explain it this way: making a Boston Cream Pie is like dancing an old but well choreographed ballet: it’s all about classic technique and basic steps.

In this case the basic steps are chiffon cake, pastry cream, and ganache. Don’t be fooled. While it is only three steps, you must dance each of them perfectly.

The chiffon cake may actually be the easiest. The original recipe likely used genoise, but I like the fragrant, sugary, yolkiness of a chiffon cake better. The vanilla pastry cream just requires a bit of patience and a good whisking arm, but learn to do this step well and you’ve conquered Éclair filling, and perfect, silky, pudding. Ganache requires a good eye for texture: your eyes tell you when it is ready, although there is a bit of leeway here in the definition of “ready.”

The result is like a step back into a scene from “The Age of Innocence.” Or in the case of me and my friends, an Oscar party where it earned very positive notices. The fragrant, eggy chiffon cake blends with the intense vanilla of the pastry cream (which I blended with whipped cream) to make an almost lemony sweetness. I used a whipped ganache on top, although to tell the truth, next time I’ll skip that step and drizzle warm ganache over the top. That will result in a lighter touch with a more intense chocolate hit.

Meanwhile, I wonder what Ho Chi Minh’s Boston Cream Pie was like?


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Law & Order: After School Special

Apple Snack Cake

after school snack 101: my major

I was summoned for jury duty last week. I no sooner arrived at the courthouse when a few tumbles of my name in a little metal drum and a few generic questions resulted in my being seated on a jury.

If I could just have that kind of luck with lottery tickets.

At the beginning I’m sure my fellow jurors and I shared the same thought: “Golly, this is just like “Law & Order.” Actually, that’s not true. It’s much easier to be seated as a member of a real jury than it is to be cast on “Law & Order.” But it doesn’t take long for it to dawn on you: that man in the robe is a real judge, those are real police, and they are carrying real guns. However, those are minor realities when it dawns on you that the impact your verdict could have on the direction of a young person’s life could be profound. This weighed heavily on us.

I won’t bore you with the details of the case except that it was for a minor felony. Unlike “12 Angry Men“, our deliberations were a model of civility and compromise, and our verdict was one that I’m sure brought us all peace of mind. We were a fairly diverse group, albeit with some similarities that were the reasons the prosecutor and defense attorney chose us. A jury in the midst of deliberations is a great study in group dynamics.

The latter is no idle thought. I have recently been conversing with a friend who, at mid-life, has returned to school for a Masters degree in Social Work. Her specialty at the moment? Group dynamics.

I always consider the fact that I do not have to return to school in the fall one of the great rewards of adulthood. But that’s me. I certainly understand the desire and / or need of returning to school, but it always makes me think of when I was a kid and had to dive into a cold lake: I’d pinch my nose and close my eyes and gird myself for the inevitable shock of the chill.

Adults who return to school, and who, like my friend continue to work full time, have their hands full. Time was, students heading off to college would be given dictionaries or typewriters as gifts. Obviously computers have made those obsolete. Actually, wouldn’t a better gift for adults returning to school be a nice roasted chicken with sides? That’s one or two less meals they’ll have to worry about. Kids have a slightly easier time of it, although you do hear a lot about how kids are oversubscribed with after-school activities these days.

When I was a kid, I would return home from school (a twelve mile walk through three foot deep snow in ninety degree weather) with my mind focused on my afternoon snack. This is where I realize how much times have changed since I was a kid. What I considered a snack back then would now seem downright skimpy: a few graham crackers, or maybe a few Ritz Crackers with peanut butter (“everything sits good on a Ritz…”). Every now and then a bowl of cereal would find its way onto the snack menu. Let me clarify: my snack was not all of the above. It was one of the above. And the cereal was likely Rice Crispies or Corn Flakes; my Mother was suspicious of Cap’n Crunch. Was she concerned about my sugar intake? Hardly. Her concern was more that I would not “…ruin my appetite for dinner.”

I’m not going to tell you that we were much more active than kids are now: the TV and I had a rather intimate relationship. But I can tell you that our eating habits were different. Were our expectations lower?

Inspired by this, I decided to make some minor magic: a little cake that kids and adults could snack on that wouldn’t break the caloric bank. Not (by any stretch of the imagination) diet food, but an appealing, tempting snack that was actually fairly healthy. The type of thing we used to call “wholesome” before that became uncool. A Marie Osmond cake in a Paris Hilton world.

It’s fall. What better starting point than apples?

Apple Cake is a fairly standard dessert in New England, certainly also in diners everywhere. I realized that as popular as Apple Pie is, many people find making the crust daunting. Apple Cake solves that problem. The downside is that unless quite a bit of sugar has been added, baking sliced apples in cake batter always tends to blunt the sweetness of even the tangiest of apples. I solved this by stealing a page from the Apple Pancake playbook: I cooked the apples separately, and then added them to the already cooled cake. In the cake, canola oil takes the place of butter, and low fat Greek yogurt adds a little lightweight richness. Actually, the cake is so good that it will pair with anything, and would be a great light alternative to biscuits for a twist on Strawberry Shortcake. I topped the cake with a bit of yogurt I’d sweetened with confectioners’ sugar—totally unnecessary, but a nice little bonus.

Since the cake is assembled in just a few simple steps, parents and kids will have a fun time making this cake together.

That’s my kind of homework.


Click here for the recipe for After School Apple Snack Cake.


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Back From the Beach

Jordan Marsh Blueberry Cake

This is one of THOSE years: the Labor Day weekend is late and the Jewish holidays are early; in fact, they commence just a couple of days after the weekend. I’m no sooner rinsing the beach sand from my feet when I have to start thinking about dessert for the family Rosh Hashanah dinner — my yearly assignment. Luckily I have had a little something stored in the back of my mind for a few weeks.

When I wrote about blueberries a few weeks ago I mentioned — almost in passing — the famous blueberry muffins from Boston’s beloved but now dearly departed Jordan Marsh department store. I haven’t been able to get those off my mind. When you have an itch you’re not supposed to scratch it, but I’m only human: I can’t resist.

On paper the Jordan Marsh blueberry muffin is an unlikely star: oversized, sugar-crusted, less muffin than cake, and perhaps even a bit on the dry side, although the better for dunking because of it.

(Does anyone still dunk? Never my cup of tea — pardon the pun — dunking was best demonstrated by Clark Gable in the movie “It Happened One Night.” Yeah, they still call them “Dunkin’ Donuts” but I don’t think anyone still does. Please correct me if I am wrong.)

Ask any Bostonian, current or former, about the Jordan Marsh muffin and you will likely get some kind of fond memories recalled about Aunties or Grandmothers bringing them on visits, not to mention quick side trips to “Jawdin’s” bakery counter whilst in the store on other business. While muffins are usually reserved for breakfast or Hollywood gift giving (muffin baskets are big business out there), we were never shy about occasionally eating the Jordan Marsh muffins for dessert.

Like dunking, the Jordan Marsh blueberry muffin is no doubt the product of a different age. For a big chunk of the mid-twentieth century, the big department stores always had in-house bakeries. Granted many, including Macy’s (which absorbed the Jordan Marsh chain some years ago), still do. But with rare exceptions the fare is trucked in from a vendor. The stuff they sell is hit or miss. The old time department store bakery was likely a bit more modest in scope, with muffins, cakes, cookies, and brownies (the Jordan Marsh nostalgia silver medalist) being the focus. I have a fond memory of my Mom returning home with a B. Altman’s Chocolate Cake from a trip accompanying my Dad to New York City. That was a few years ago — B. Altman’s is a library now — but I remember that big swirly-frosted cake as if it was last week. The latter will likely produce a phone call from my Mom remarking on my elephantine memory.

But I mention that cake as an illustration of the aesthetic I am trying to highlight. I can’t say for sure that everything those bakeries sold was golden, but it was good dependable stuff that didn’t try too hard.

This brings us back to blueberry muffins and an early Rosh Hashanah. I thought it might be nice to let summer influence the choice of desserts this year. They usually are tinged with the rustier flavors and colors of the fall season, like my pumpkin cake from last year. This year they’ll be bright and summery, and the aforementioned idea of serving blueberry muffins for dessert seems apt.

Two problems, or shall I say, minor roadblocks, require equally minor detours: The first is that “Jawdin’s” is gone and so are their muffins. The second is that I can’t serve muffins at a holiday dinner. Serving muffins as dessert is a cute trick best saved for another time.

Luckily, I can easily swerve around both roadblocks. Jordan Marsh may be gone, but with a bit of internet digging the real, real, recipe (as opposed to the real recipe) is not hard to find. And if I don’t want to serve muffins for dessert I can just pour the batter into a cake pan or two and serve it as a cake.

I did just that, using two five inch cake pans which gave them great height. But feel free to use one standard eight or nine inch pan.

My only real problem was my own nagging desire to bring my own twist to this recipe. Luckily a little experimentation quickly made me retreat from that idea. I thought it might be nice to serve this as a real cake, including frosting. Bad idea. I tried a simple white frosting which had the double whammy of making the whole thing too sweet while completely obliterating the blueberry flavor. Ditto a really nice lemon frosting: triple whammy. Too sweet, no blueberry, all lemon.

So, going back to basics, I decided to let the cake shine as is, in all its basic mid-century home-spun glory, kind of like an edible version of thumbing through an old copy of Life Magazine. For the holiday dinner, if I decide to gild the lily at all it will be by dabbing a bit of barely sweetened whipped cream on the plate, as much for looks as for the blueberries and cream simulation.

Bear in mind that the highlights of these muffins, the crunchy sugar crown, the thick brown crust, and the abundance of blueberries are the things that require just the slightest extra attention while mixing the batter: be sure to carefully fold in the blueberries with a rubber spatula using caution to break the berries as little as possible. And the sugary, crusty crown? Just use a heavy hand with the sugar. As with any muffin, mix this relatively heavy batter as little as possible.

And if you’ve just got to make muffins, I say, “Go for it,” but be sure to fill the muffin tins almost to the top so they develop a big crunchy “crown,” Don’t use paper liners or you won’t get the trademark brown crust.

Everybody out of the water! Fall is here!


Click here for the recipe for “Jordan Marsh Blueberry Cake.”


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Christmas in July (The Figgy Pudding part anyway…)

Semolina Fig Cake

fa la la la la...

Over the past several days I have been noticing that retailers — both on line and off — are trying to use what may turn out to be one of the hottest summers on record to their advantage. The other day while channel surfing I happened upon a show on QVC devoted solely to Christmas trees and wreaths. The show’s title (you guessed it) was Christmas In July. Well heck, these folks don’t trade in subtlety, they trade in cubic zirconia.

Can you blame them for trying? The thought of the holiday season may have a cooling effect on some folks, others will be enticed to start their shopping early, and still others — like me — watch in amusement from the artificial winter of my air conditioned living room.

As I sat watching the various ways you can adjust the trees to flash their twinkling lights, my air conditioner faithfully fighting off Mother Nature’s sticky panting, I thought of the song “We Wish You A Merry Christmas,” most notably the line that beckons, “Oh bring us a figgy pudding.” (I would think of food.)

Wait. Did I think of the song or was it playing in the background as the host of the show demonstrated how the remote control on the battery powered wreath works?

No matter: it put the thought of figs in my mind. Fresh figs, happily, are actually in season during the summer months, unlike the PVC wreaths flashing their LED lights in tempo to “Jingle Bells.”

I love Christmas and the entire holiday season, but I hew to a different vocabulary of tastes during the summer months: a better way of putting it would be to say “a time and a taste for everything.” (Sounds like a T shirt slogan. On sale in the lobby gift shop.)

During the summer I gravitate towards lighter foods, and things with brighter, fresher flavors. That does not mean that cake is out of the question. In fact when the thought of figs came to mind so did an old recipe of mine, one that I’ve been anxious to revisit for quite a while. It’s the first recipe I ever wrote that got published. Make that ghost-published.

You see, I have a friend who spends a great deal of time away from New York, so when he’s in town we always try to get together and catch up. Usually this involves gabbing in a Chinese restaurant until the staff makes it abundantly clear that they’d like us to leave. One time a few years ago he came over for coffee and cake.

He liked the cake so much that he asked for the recipe. A while later, with my permission, he volunteered the recipe for a book that was sold for charity, adding an amusing back-story that bore no relation to the truth. Did I care? No! I had published my first recipe. (I have no idea how well the book sold.)

The funny thing is that when I baked the cake I faced a kitchen with dwindling supplies, including – uh-oh – not enough sugar.

So, winging it with whatever I had in the cupboard, I came up with an adaptation of a basic Italian Olive Oil cake recipe that was satisfyingly plain. Don’t confuse plain with boring, because the cake was flavorful, moist, and had an unexpectedly hearty crumb. (Is using the term “crumb” a little high-falutin’? Apologies. It sounds like we’re having a cake tasting the way folks have wine tastings, but instead of comparing bouquets we’re comparing crumbs. A slippery slope. I promise to use caution.)

Some people hear the words “olive oil” and “cake” in the same sentence and get a little worried. If you’ve cooked with olive oil you know it usually has a scent that ranges from grassy green to turpentine. In salads or cooking that’s usually not a problem; in chocolate chip cookies this could be objectionable. But with the right cohorts olive oil can be a welcome addition to the sweet part of the meal.

Just like when you’re making chicken, a touch of lemon is compatible with olive oil. Maple syrup lends a bit caramel, and vanilla adds…well, vanilla.

The real difference is using semolina flour. This adds a texture, color, and a slightly sweeter grain flavor than plain flour. The result is like a big, moist corn muffin with hints of undecipherable influences. It’s good cake, and I thought, perfect for a re-visit, fresh figs in hand.

The figs I found were just on the cusp of going past their prime, so I carefully diced them (a serrated knife helped), and gently folded them into the batter. For a touch of crunch I sprinkled Demerara sugar on top before baking, the large sugar crystals lending a touch of molasses crunch to the finished cake. The figs dissolved slightly into the finished cake, but not enough that the little pop-pop-pop of their seeds – a la “Fig Newtons”—was lost. Their gentle honey flavor mellowed a bit, mixing beautifully with the other sweet ingredients. It all sounds kind of icky sweet, but in truth, not so much. Mellow is the best adjective here.

A perfect light summer dessert, yes, but not a bad choice with coffee, even for breakfast.

And this time the recipe’s all mine. No ghosts.


Click here for my Semolina Fig Cake recipe.


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How I Roll

Jelly Roll with Rhubarb Jam

Jelly Roll with Rhubarb Jam

There it sat. Right where I left it, give or take the few inches I had slid it in either direction to get to something else. A visible reminder of my own over-reaching ambition. Would I ever actually use it?

Lest you think I am talking about a piece of exercise equipment, rest assured that I am not. I’m talking about the jar of Rhubarb Jelly I made last week. In my ambition to cook with ingredients that are fresh and local, I bought what I thought was “a little” rhubarb, and ended up with an exercise in, “Okay Smarty-Pants, now what?” a/k/a one quart of homemade jelly. Last week I baked my Mom’s jam-filled Thumbprint cookies, but they made only the tiniest of dents in my tank o’jelly.

I knew that I needed to put it to good use; indeed its fiery, ketchupy, redness practically demanded a return in front of my camera, like some botanical Norma Desmond ready for its close up.

If you read my blog last week, I can almost hear the “sssshhhh” of your pants /skirt / pajamas as you slide down in your chair thinking, “Aw jeez, again with the Rhubarb Jelly?” Fear not. This is less about the jelly and more about the use.

Let me make the briefest of detours now to correct myself. Even though I refer to it as jelly, what I made is actually jam, the difference being that jelly uses only the juice of the fruit; jam uses the entire fruit, seeds and all. By nature, it would seem to me that there could not be such a thing as Rhubarb Jelly: ever tried to juice a rhubarb?

The recent unseasonably summery weather got me to thinking of all the great things we eat during the warm weather. I was practically ready for a kitchen clambake and Strawberry Shortcake when the sixty-degree temperature returned. It’s a good thing I like the cool weather. I’ll put away my lobster bib until later.

All of this musing about hot weather food also brought to mind Jelly Roll. I can remember more than one warm Sunday afternoon meal that ended with a sticky slice of Jelly Roll. Aesthetically I doubt that there is a more humble dessert, but its humility belies a sophisticated heart. Yes, it looks humble, but there is a little technique required.

Jelly roll is known to bakers as Biscuit à Roulade, and shares a chunk of baking DNA with Ladyfingers. Ladyfingers are piped through a pastry bag. Jelly roll is made in a sheet pan and rolled unfilled just out of the oven.  This is a lesson in technique that is at once technical and chemical. If you wait until the cake cools to roll it, the sugar will have crystallized, and the cake will crack. (This same technique – and science – is used to make the little rolled “cigar” cookies.)

The cake gets it airiness because the only leavening in the batter is the air you whip into the eggs (the Kitchen Aid mixer proves to be your best mate here.) The only other technique-related task that may throw some aspiring Jelly Roll bakers is the need to separate the eggs. If you can handle that, you’re golden (and so is the cake.)

Savvy readers of Butter Flour Eggs may remember the Yule Log cake I made at Christmas. It was also a Jelly Roll, although filled with Coffee Buttercream instead of jelly, frosted to resemble a log, and decorated with Meringue Mushrooms.

I have a better reason for mentioning the Yule Log beyond just hyper linking to past glories. I realized as I was eating my slice of Jelly Roll that I was playing with my food. (I think the population of Earth is likely divided into two groups: those who play with their food and those who do not. I’m not talking about throwing my food at others, or other subversive activities. I’m talking about ritualistic eating.)

Okay, this needs explaining. I eat certain foods a certain way, all the time. Perhaps it is a mild form of O.C.D., but mild enough that if I can’t eat that food the prescribed way every time I do not feel that the world will come to an end. Examples: Bagels? I eat around the hole. Ditto donuts (on the rare occasions I eat them.) Pie? I eat the filling first, then the crust as a chaser. Soup? Crackers last—and never in the actual soup. You get the picture and probably have your own list of habits.

Jelly Roll? I was absentmindedly eating the Jelly Roll and realized that I was uncoiling it, scraping off the jelly, and eating the cake, exactly as I had done as a child. Noticing this made me think, “Maybe I’m just not that into jelly.” I mentioned this to a hungry friend whose attention skipped past my aberrant eating habits and right to making Jelly Roll. He asked, “Can you fill the Jelly Roll with Whipped Cream?”

I quickly topped that suggestion by proposing to flavor the whipped cream with my Rhubarb Jelly. Or even better: Chambord. How about a really perverse Strawberry Shortcake comprised of sliced strawberries sandwiched by two slices of the Chambord-laced whipped cream Jelly Roll? (Note that Jelly Roll’s name changes when you replace the jelly, becoming Swiss Roll.)

So if I’m just not into jelly, there’s a whole cast of characters waiting to take its place.

And, not that far off,  a whole summer to enjoy them. 


Click here for the recipes for Rhubarb Jelly and Jelly Roll.


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